Mar 29, 2019

(Dead Oceans Records DOC177, 2019) 

Durand Jones & The Indications aren’t looking backwards. Helmed by foil vocalists in Durand Jones and drummer Aaron Frazer, the Indications conjure the dynamism of Jackie Wilson, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. This young band of twenty-somethings are students of soul, including guitarist Blake Rhein, who moonlights doing research for The Numero Group. Even with that background, and an aesthetic steeped in the golden, strings-infused dreaminess of early ‘70s soul, the Indications are planted firmly in the present, with the urgency of this moment in time. On "American Love Call", Durand Jones & The Indications’ soulful sophomore LP, the band reckons with how to balance love and fury of modern day America. A fierce, fully-formed thesis, "American Love Call" is as grand and cinematic as it is focused on fleeting details.

Recorded for $452.11, including a case of beer, the Indications’ 2016 self-titled debut was the product of five friends who met as students at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Having met in 2012, the project was initially intended as a standalone recording project, with vocalist Jones, a native of rural Louisiana, joined by Frazer, Rhein, bassist Kyle Houpt, and keyboardist Steve Okonski. The album was released by renowned Midwest soul label Colemine Records, and quickly picked up steam on the back of the band’s booming live show and the enthusiastic recommendation of independent record store clerks across the country — who moved thousands of copies by simply playing the hell out of the LP in their shops for their discerning customers. The album was given another boost in early 2018 when Dead Oceans teamed up with the band and Colemine to bring the Indications to global audiences. "Did I expect to do this shit once I got out of college ? Hell no," Jones relays, laughing. "Totally not. But this is what God is telling me to do, move and groove. So I’m gonna stay in my lane".

"American Love Call" is the sound of Durand Jones & the Indications arriving. Opener "Morning in America" traverses the bleakest motifs of modern American life, channeled through the band’s own bold vitality: an old-soul croon made new, a glimmer of youth and hope burning at its core. Continuing into American Love Call’s widened scope, "What I Know About You" offers a true-blue, platonic love song while the dreamy, bossa nova groove of "Sea Gets Hotter" is about finding the person you want to be with at the end of the world. "Long Way Home" undulates with a funky bass line, sonics at odds with its somber subject, while "Court of Love" ripples with heartbreak, brooding and swaying. Jones oscillates between high-energy soul, pensive deep ballads, and harmonies, a sharp contrast to Frazer’s falsetto. A vibrant through-line helping flesh out the Indications’ sound is the band’s love of sonic mish-mashes. Rhein and Frazer initially bonded over a love of crate-digging for rare 45s, and that vast musical appreciation and flexibility injects an accessibility into the veins of "American Love Call". Frazer is as quick to point to Nas’ Illmatic and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt as formative listening as he is to gospel, while Rhein is as likely to pull influence from a ‘70s folk-rock song, and Jones has a background in classical music paired with a longtime love of soul, Rhythm'n'Blues, and pop.

"Soul music’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember," Jones says. "I remember being a little kid and being in my dad’s truck, and whenever "Devotion" from Earth, Wind & Fire would come on the radio, he’d swerve into the left lane, then into the right lane". He laughs, pausing to clarify just how rural the part of Louisiana they’d be driving in was. "I remember that just being the most fun experience, when that song’d come on the radio, because he’d do that every single time. Soul music’s just always been present". Rhein explains that the Indications use their inspirations the same way hip-hop producers do, borrowing from the sampling mentality. Rhein and Frazer, along with bassist Houpt, all studied audio engineering at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, and Frazer credits that to how they craft the Indications’ sound: the ability to listen at a component level, to zero in on what makes a record electrify the listener, and synthesize that with their own work.

As much as the diversion in taste is responsible for "American Love Call", it’s where the Indications come together that’s just as vital to their songwriting. From a shared Dropbox the band used to circulate music in 2012 to their current Indications Inspiration streaming playlist, that group-think mentality and collective brain trust is what makes the Indications work, with each song proving a collaborative process. The resulting "American Love Call" is a record made the way the Indications dreamed it’d sound, a sprawling and limitless equation. Recorded at Brooklyn’s Studio G throughout a few sessions last July and August, the focus here is on vocals as much as it is a newfound confidence in songwriting. The split leads between Jones’ husky howl and Frazer’s dulcet falsetto and a chorus of backing vocals lend a dynamic punch to the sound, fleshed out by the elegance of strings and an ambition to prove and push themselves.

"American Love Call" may make sprawling strides both stylistically and sonically from its debut, but thematically, the songwriting is a leap, too. Its title harkens back to "Creole Love Call", a 1927 jazz standard popularized by Duke Ellington. "We’re in a time when so many in this country romanticize the past, wishing to return to a place of simplicity and former glory. But the reality of our history can be disillusioning", Frazer explains. "For so many in America, the past represents violence, oppression, fear and colonialism". As America grows more diverse, we have the opportunity to form the strong, interwoven tapestry that we’ve long claimed. When we find a way to unite across our various movements and see the commonalities of our struggles, we can begin to push forward together. We can begin to see the threads connecting our goals as disparate rallying cries blends into a single song. An "American Love Call". What a great record to explore!

Mar 24, 2019

(Tender Loving Empire Records TLE-077, 2018)

If life was at all fair Ural Thomas would be a household name, his music slotted into countless sweet, seductive mixtapes between James Brown, Otis Redding, and Stevie Wonder (all of whom Thomas has performed with.) Straddling the line between hot soul shouter and velvety-smooth crooner, Thomas released a few singles in the late 60’s and early 70’s; most notably "Can You Dig It", which featured backing vocals from soul luminaries Merry Clayton, Mary Wells and Brenda Holloway. Thomas played over forty shows at the legendary Apollo Theater before turning his back on an unkind business and heading home to Portland, Oregon.

It goes without saying that a man practically built out of rhythm would never stop playing music. Thomas began hosting a regular Sunday night jam session at his home that ran for nearly twenty years. A de facto mentor to many of the younger players, Thomas reminds us all that "If you care about what you’re doing, you need to build those muscles and do the work. Don’t get discouraged, do it for love. Even if you’re digging ditches, do it with passion". In 2014, local soul DJ Scott Magee sat in on drums. The two became fast friends and at Magee’s urging Thomas decided to give his musical career another shot. Magee became the musical director, they put together a band, and in 2016 released a self-titled album on Mississippi Records. In 2017 Thomas signed with Tender Loving Empire Records and began work on what, in many respects, will be his debut full length. Diving deep into lifetime of melodic creativity, Thomas and his band got to work. Recorded in Magee’s Studio Arthur’s Attic, "The Right Time" features the air-tight work of Magee on drums, percussion, and backing vocals, Bruce Withycombe (The Decemberists) on baritone sax, Portland jazz scene fixture Brent Martens on guitars and vibraphone, Arcellus Sykes on bass, Steve Aman (Lady Rizo) on piano and organ, Dave Monnie on trumpet, Willie Matheis (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies) on tenor sax, and Jasine Rimmel, Joy Pearson, Sarah King, Rebecca Marie Miller on backing vocals. The Arco Quartet performed the strings, and the record was engineered and mixed by Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Blitzen Trapper) and mastered by JJ Golden (Sharon Jones, Ty Segall).

One might think after a sizeable taste of early success Thomas would be more than a touch bitter - yet the opposite is true. "We have to be positive if we want the world to get better" Thomas advises. "We’ve come a long way, but if you carry a grudge with the whole world you’ll stop your growth. We’re a family, all just brothers and sisters, descendants of Adam. You can’t get anywhere without an open heart". A developing artist at nearly eighty years old, for Thomas music has always been about bringing people together. "If we play for twenty people we cook it like it’s twenty thousand" says Thomas. "If we make someone smile we’re satisfied. They’re ain’t no difference between us. It’s all love and brotherhood. If folks listen to my record and feel that, I’ll feel very blessed". Standing in bold defiance of the idea that aging is a reason to slow down and stop living, for Thomas the right time to get down is the next time someone plugs in a guitar or puts on a record. Ural is ready - are you too ?

The soul revival of the last decade or two has brought the blessing of exciting new sounds from a once nearly dormant genre. That the movement has been driven by older artists getting a fresh start has made it all the more appealing. When singers like Sharon Jones or Charles Bradley appeared to come out of nowhere late in life, their stellar music raised questions about why we'd never heard them until so late. The latest entry into that scene, such as it is, Ural Thomas has a now-obvious biography: a few singles 50 years ago, decades of silence, a surprisingly good record. "The Right Time", technically the debut from Ural Thomas and the Pain, offers a less obvious breadth of sound, showing a star happily still at his peak even as he nears 80.

The drums and the James Brown-y horn hits that open the album suggest Thomas is a certain kind of performer. He's got a little funk to him and a willingness to get deep into the groove, all in line with his biggest single from the past, 1967's "Can You Dig It ?" New cut "Slow Down" might be about Thomas's experience of how fast things move, but he doesn't sound like someone interested in pacing himself, no matter what he sings. When he shouts "! / Time...time...time..." and moves onto other happy topics before finally breaking into a shrieking, it sounds like force of a pent-up soul career letting loose. But Thomas moves from there into "No Distance (Between You And Me)", a track more grounded in Motown (though lacking the sort of bass playing the Funk Brothers would have ridden), touching on the sensibilities of a group like the Temptations. Just two tracks in, and it's hard to figure if Thomas comes from a harder funk tradition like Brown or a smoother pop place, somewhere more like Smokey Robinson. As the album progresses, it becomes clear that Thomas has no intention of being pigeonholed, moving from those sounds more toward later Stax, earlier doo-wop, and whatever else suits him. Likewise, while it's fair to put him with other late-noticed soul singers, he wouldn't be an easy fit on Daptone. The doo-wop influences make for some of the most striking moments on "The Right Time", not least because they reveal an artist willing to reach into every corner of his toolkit.

On "Smoldering Fire", Thomas uses his falsetto to good effect, revealing his range. His tone on this track might not be as clear as it could be (making for the rare wondering what a younger Thomas might have done), but his phrasing and expressiveness more than make up for it. Of course, right after that cut, Thomas moves into the more rocking title track, closer to James Brown territory. That versatility makes Ural Thomas and the Pain hard to pin down. Thomas could have been a crooner, a funk singer, a smooth R&B artist. He could have bounced between Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. Instead he disappeared for decades. Fortunately, his reemergence shows roots across the Rhythm & Blues spectrum, but isn't indebted to any of them. Instead of a throwback to a given line, we get simply Ural Thomas in the present, something that's easy to dig.

Mar 21, 2019

BONNIE DOBSON - Bonnie Dobson (Radio Canada International 348, 1969)

Bonnie Dobson Had already acquired legendary; status by the time she recorded this, her eponymous album in 1969. In the ten years since she wrote it, her song "Morning Dew" had long taken on a life of its own and flown far beyond the cafes of Greenwich Village, where the era's emergent troubadours turned out to see her play. Joan Baez may have taken inspiration from Bob Dylan; but Dylan dug Dobson the flame-haired Canuck who had toured with Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. He even turned out to see her at Gerde's Folk City, using her arrangement of "The Ballad Of Peter Amberly" for his own "Ballad Of Donald White". Fred Neil unleashed his wild fret board mercury on "Morning Dew", in the process creating an arrangement that Tim Rose took and turned into his signature song. By the time Dobson got around to putting this collection of songs together, The Grateful Dead had also recorded "Morning Dew" for their debut album.

It made sense for her to reclaim it. Hence the appearance of Dobson's most famous tune, re recorded for her first album in five years, with Ben McPeek's elegant strings rising with the threat of imminent devastation. "When I saw a film called On The Beach," she said, explaining the song's genesis, "it made a tremendous impression on me, particularly at that time because everyone was very worried about the bomb and whether we were going to get through the next ten years. I was singing in Los Angeles and staying with a girl named Joyce. She went to bed or something and I just say and suddenly I just started writing this song. I had never written anything in my life. Really it was a kind of re-enactment of that film in a way where at the end, there is nobody left and it was a conversation between these two people trying to explain what's happening."

Reconfigured by producer Jack Richardson for a world in which folk had forged myriad tributaries into pop and rock, Bonnie Dobson never sounded better than she does here. In what amounted to a soft-rock setting, her new songs held their own magnificently. "Rainy Windows" is a pensive itinerant's paean to heartbreak in the windy city: "Chicago seen through rainy windows/Always makes me wanna cry." "I'm Your Woman" ventures more emotional uncertainty before giving way to a baroque pop sunburst. Less than twenty seconds into "Winter's Going", a sitar serves notice of its arrival with soft, strident chords of portent. Dobson steers a straight course through her own paean to the decay of nature and, with it, romance while the inspired arrangement envelopes her It isn't difficult to see why RCA saw manifold pop possibilities in Dobson's return. Her cut-glass tones made the sort of sublime sense that calls to mind similar practitioners of the art: Eclection's Kerrilee Male, The Sunshine Company's Mary Nance.

In terms of releasing a single from the album, "I Got Stung" picked itself. Framed by tumbling drums, bonkers strings and dive-bar piano, this potent dose of woman scorned was none the worse for its passing resemblance to "He Quit Me", the song written by a then-unknown Warren Zevon and sung by Leslie Miller for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. Also featured on that soundtrack, of course, was Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" a song Dobson would have known through her association with its writer Fred Neil. Thanks to its bustling rhythmic clatter, her version on the song here has long been a bona fide "results" record for clued-up DJs. If "Morning Dew" instantly established Dobson as a songwriter, it does no harm to reiterate her credentials as a fine interpreter of other people's material. Her version of Jackson C Frank's "You Never Wanted Me" radiates warm empathy. No less arresting are Dobson's versions of J P Bourtavie and Hal Shape's "Time", the sort of fragrant pop chanson that loaf-haired lovelies of the French-speaking countries used to sing on '60s Eurovision Song Contests. Better still is Gilles Vigneault's "Pendant Que", an exquisite study in autumnal sadness piloted from floral harpsichord intro to sitar freakout in exactly three minutes.

Thirty-seven years on, Dobson's own ambivalent feelings towards the album may be informed by the fact that, ultimately these songs, offered no new commercial dawn for her. Of Richardson's opulent production, she says, "I suppose that's what I wanted [at the time]". But by the time Bonnie Dobson made its way into the world, the pop climate was already getting hostile to soft rock, no matter what the pedigree of its creator. Dobson herself raised her kids and settled down in London where she became head administrator in the Philosophy department at the University Of London's Birkbeck College. Thanks to that one song, her place in the corpus of popular music is assured. Bonnie Dobson gives you eleven more reasons to keep her name alive.